Sunday, November 13, 2011

The original street gang: Robin Hood and his Merry Men

Lythe and listin gentilmen
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman
His name was Robyn Hode 

The third fytte begins with:
Lyth and lystyn gentilmen
All that nowe be here
Of Litell Johnn that was the knightes man
Goode myrth ye shall here 

The gem above is an excerpt of the gest, Robin Hood and the Monk, written around 1450 tells the story of Robin and his men.

Was Robin Hood a real man, a composite of several men, or a figure made up by a clever bard or was he the “John Doe” of the medieval age? Instead of some dude being responsible for a crime, perhaps it was easier to blame poor Robin Hood. As with another famous figure, King Arthur, we just can’t get enough of this bad boy and we’ll never know the real truth.

Part of the Robin Hood legend originated from the May Day celebrations. It should be remembered that pagan festivals were incorporated by the Catholic Church when Christianity spread over Europe. The Church knew it couldn’t completely wipe out many of the ancient beliefs & rituals, so the festivals were updated and re-named (in some cases) to become sanitized. Robin, Maid Marian, and Friar Tuck all had parts in the fertility rites of the first day in May. This day, also known as Beltane, went back much further than the Robin Hood legends.

Stories of Robin and his men traveled around the land. In the medieval period, a type of poetry which told a tale of exploits was called a gest; fyttes are sections of the gests. One of the earliest known written records of Robin Hood came from William Langford.  This except below was taken from Piers Plowman, written in 1377. The character Sloth is speaking in the excerpt below:

I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,
But I know rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf erle of Chestre.

Robin Hood and the Monk were originally described as ‘talkyng of the munke and Robyn Hode’. These two ballads at least, were possibly written by minstrels who recited or read them to an audience. Stories told to children and adults alike became popular, especially due to the nature of the tales. Robin and his Merry Men took from the well-to-do. Who could resist such a tale?

Sherwood Forest is familiar as the home to Robin. Sherwood Forest is a real place, in Nottinghamshire. The Major Oak, is a tree said to date back to the times of Robin Hood. The tree is supported by timbers, to keep heavy branches from breaking off the main trunk. One of the early ballads does speak of Robin being at Sherwood Forest, but Sherwood is not the only location within England to lay claim to Robin and his men who wear the Lincoln green. Yorkshire had multiple ‘Robin Hoods’ as resident between the 13th and 15th centuries in Skellow, Wakefield, and Loxley. More of the ancient stories use Barnsdale as Robin’s hood, than Sherwood. Barnsdale is north of Doncaster in Yorkshire.

Robin rallies his men to harass the Sheriff and prevent him from collecting taxes from the common folk in our retellings. Modern day stories connect Robin and his supporters to Prince John and King Richard, yet the true medieval ballads actually don’t speak of the Lion-heart or his brother, considering the time date. In the early stories, Robin deals with King Edward.

As mentioned previously, the earliest written story is ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’. In this tome, Robin and Little John have a disagreement. Going their separate ways, Robin is betrayed by a monk at St. Mary’s Church in Nottingham after being recognized. John finds out and gathers Much to help him rescue Robin. During the attempt, John kills the monk and Much kills the monk’s page. The monk was enroute to see the King and take him a letter. Robin’s men complete the monk’s mission and end up secure a pardon for their leader and are appointed yeomen themselves. Robin is freed. In the end, the King forgives all involved.

During court cases in English history, criminals were actually called “Robin Hoods” by petitioners to Parliament. One example, in 1439, called an alleged suspect a felon and compared the criminal to Robin Hood. Robert Cecil, in 1605, called Gay Fawkes, a “Robin Hood” during his trial for sedition & treachery. John of Fordum claimed, in his writing about 1384, that Robin Hood fought for Simon de Montfort.

King John’s chronicler noted a Robert Hod, the servant of the Abbot of Cirencester in the 12th century, is on record as killing Ralf of Cirencester.  There are four different Robert Hods on record during King Henry III’s reign. Keep in mind that Robert and Robyn, or Robin, were used interchangeably. Through English history, the name Robin Hood began to symbolize rebellion. The poor and middle class even took on the name Robin Hood during protests.

Robin’s cohorts, Little John and Will Scarlet are named in 14th century documents, but again, whether they are real men or alias used is subject to debate. The Sheriff of Nottingham was a real post, and was held by many men. Two possible candidates could be Phillip Mark (early 13th century) and Henry de Faucemberg (early 14th century). Back during the Middle Ages, the appointed Sheriffs acted just as a Sheriff does now, running their regions, with Reeves handling the individual cities or villages and undersheriffs (Deputies) assisting in larger areas. Guy of Gisbourne, on the other hand, may have been (like Robin and his men) a compilation of characters or an alias for a real person. During the medieval period, a town did exist in Yorkshire call Guisborough.

The robber in green hasn’t lost any of his popularity over the centuries.  Shakespeare mentioned Robin Hood in As You Like It. Robin Hood has been the subject of many poets, including Tennyson and Keats.  Howard Pyle, who wrote many medieval-themed stories, had his Robin Hood story. T.H. White included the hooded thief in The Sword and the Stone. Library shelves are full of stories, and writers continue to come up with new stories to this day. Steven Lawhead, Angus Donald, Marsha Canham, Jennifer Roberson, and Lisa Hendrix have novels that vary from historical fiction, paranormal and romance all involving Robin and his fellows.

Robin Hood’s adventures will remain a part of England’s cultural heritage as long as there are those who love romance and medieval history. Perhaps someday, an archaeologist or contractor will discover a long-lost item with indisputable proof of the existence of Robin. Until that time, he and his companions and his protagonists will remain legends.

Hollywood has been enthralled with the tales of Robin and his Merry Men since the 1930’s. Who can forget the sight of Errol Flynn swinging on to a tree in his tights, with his famous line “Welcome to Sherwood”?  Douglas Fairbanks, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe join a long list of actors who have played the English legend. In one of the spoof movies, Cary Elwes playing the main character in Robin Hood: Men in Tights is asked why he is the best man to play Robin Hood. He replies “Because I have an English accent.” Television hasn’t ignored the man who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor, either. From black and white to color, the man in green has amused audiences world-wide. One of the most recent series came out of the BBC. The last show to feature shocked its audience by allowing Maid Marian to be killed as a first season-ending shocker.

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